Since the reckoning reignited by the killing of George Floyd last year, though, the tide has changed enormously.
Following a vote in the US Senate on Tuesday, the House of Representatives is expected to pass legislation Wednesday that will establish June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day. Once the vote goes through the House, the bill will head to President Joe Biden’s desk for a signature.
Here’s how the fight to recognize Juneteenth evolved over the years.
Activists have long sought broader recognition
In 2000, the group’s founder and chairman Rev. Ronald Myers began a campaign to make it a national day of observance and for all 50 states and US territories to recognize it as a state holiday or observance.
Others, like Opal Lee, fought for Juneteenth’s recognition in less traditional ways.
The “grandmother of Juneteenth” continued to push for the effort with an annual 2.5-mile walk in her hometown, symbolizing the two-and-a-half years it took for word of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to reach enslaved people in Texas.
Five years later, her efforts paid off.
A similar effort failed last year
“Today’s Senate passage of our legislation to commemorate Juneteenth as a federal holiday will address this long-ignored gap in our history, recognize the wrong that was done, acknowledge the pain and suffering of generations of slaves and their descendants, and finally celebrate their freedom.”
Others say more needs to be done
At a time when Black Americans are facing systemic challenges such as the racial wealth gap, disproportionate incarceration and persistent health disparities, making Juneteenth a national holiday may seem like a small gesture.
Amara Enyia, policy research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives, cautions that making Juneteenth a federal holiday shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for substantive action.
“What people are really looking for is beyond symbolic acknowledgment is tangible policies from the federal government that actually speak to whether or not they acknowledge this country’s history and its present,” she said.
Still, some activists say that even that small gesture is an important first step.
Nsé Ufot, community activist and CEO of the New Georgia Project, sees a federal acknowledgment of Juneteenth as “part of a larger effort for truth and reconciliation.”
“I see it as a part of a larger strategic push and a larger cultural push to not allow our memories to atrophy, to make sure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, and that there’s actually a plan to repair the harm that has been visited by a significant portion of the American citizenry,” she told Asia Despatch.